|The Night Bookmobile (detail), by Audrey Niffenegger|
Biographies, even the longest ones, give only a partial view of their subject, and Brown's is no exception. The inner life is not part of his remit, insofar as that refers to Goethe’s private emotions, but the extent of Brown’s knowledge of Goethe’s outward life and his works is pretty staggering. One small detail: noting that Carlsbad replaced Jena for Goethe after Schiller’s death, how did Brown come up with such details as that Goethe was among “about 650 visitors in Carlsbad”? Sigrid Damm, in Christiane and Goethe, devotes space to Goethe’s visits to the spa, including the one undertaken with Christiane, noting some of the well-known personalities at the watering hole, but she doesn’t mention how many visitors were actually partaking of the waters.
|M.M. Prechtl, Goethe in Farbenkreis|
Does anyone care about the role of Christiane in all of this? Was she just a little nobody, an ordinary person, like many other women in Weimar, who would otherwise not attract any interest had she not been associated with Goethe? Marius Fränzel clearly thinks she does not merit a role in a double biography. Here is his judgment of Damm's study, summarized: Taken by herself, this woman is in no way interesting. Without her connection with Goethe, she remains ordinary, one among many contemporary women with an ordinary life. One should not be surprised to discover that she was no Simone de Beauvoir. Christiane herself simply does not interest us, despite the over 500 pages of this volume.
Moreover, Fränzel asserts, Damm knows this as well, yet she seems to have set her self the task of pleading for this person, of making Christiane interesting — without success. 600 letters were exchanged between Goethe and Christiane, yet at the end of this book the relationship between Goethe and Christiane has not been illuminated. Fränzel nsists that we know only what we can see from the outside, that they apparently loved each other — insofar as that can be explained — that they succeeded in establishing a way of life that was beneficial to Goethe’s productivity, and that was probably pragmatically accepted and maintained. In sum: “Liebe und Alltag einer Lebensgemeinschaft.”
Fränzel does give Damm credit for the amount of archival research she has undertaken, which supports her narrative style, which he calls the “Ich stelle mir vor” method. As he writes, “‘Ich stelle mir vor’ erscheint in diesem Blick nur als die reflektierte Variante dessen, was Biographik in wesentlichen Teilen immer schon war: Vergegenwärtigung des Undokumentierten.” Damm belongs to the school of biographers who rely on their imagination to effectuate a portrait, rather than on “the facts.”
|Cornelia Goethe, ca. 1770, by J.L.E. Morgenstern|
As has been written: "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." There is no use in speculating on what might have become of Christiane had Goethe devoted more time to her education. Had he done so, we would have had a different Goethe to contend with. But the omission does suggest that Goethe could not combine physical intimacy with a woman with whom he was intellectually or literarily involved (Charlotte von Stein), even had he wished to do so (Marianne v. Willemer, Minna Herzlieb)
Picture credits: The Guardian; Galeria Jacobsa Nürnberg